Monday, January 28, 2008

For all the marbles....

Decoys floating around in the bowl of ice cubes

Hoss hears the geese too!

Took a chance on the last day of duck season and hunted a private/public tidal marsh on the lower Potomac. I was the guest of 3 locals, who have all lived within 10 miles of the spot their whole lives. Hoss, their loyal 7 year old retriever, joined us. We set out from the boat ramp at about 6am and it was frigid : 17 degrees. The boat was sailing through a solid sheet of ice - about 1/4" thick. Any ducks in the area had obviously flown out when the marsh froze overnight. When we arrived at the duck blind, I was equally skeptical of the decoy spread, which consisted of 3 dozen Herters goose floaters from about 1975 (no fresh paint), 6 hand painted cork or foam mallards, and a robo-duck spinning decoy. Since we had to run the boat through the ice about 30 times to open up a patch of open water, I was sure that this would be a long, sleepy morning. However, I was wrong.

The shooting started early and never became heavy, but was consistent enough to make it a fun day. Due to the full moon, the tide in the marsh was not behaving normally and at about noon, we realized that we would be stranded for another several hours in the mud. I shot much better, and ultimately claimed 2 geese (really 1.5), 3 mallards (really 2.5), and a very dark ruddy duck that I mistakenly thought was a redhead when it flew into the decoys at about 40 mph. Hoss got work early and often, making several difficult retrieves through ice, mud, and flowing water. His reward - bacon, a scrapple sandwich, a hamburger, and anything else that the boys cooked up in the blind over the propane stove. He always got his share.

It was a great way to end the season - a cold hunt that was difficult but rewarding, with some of the finest company you could have in southern Maryland.
A taste of Southern Maryland!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Duck Season - T Minus 1

Two canvasback drakes

I was on the road in northeastern Maryland for work and got an invite to hunt a nice blind, on a nice creek, with some great guys. Ambiguous enough? It's the last week of the season, and all the freshwater areas like ponds and small wetlands are under ice - the ducks are not using them at all. At the same time, the weather is not quite bitter enough to push ducks into the corn fields. So that leaves tidal rivers and creeks. We utilized an interesting decoy setup on this one - about 2 dozen mallards and 6 dozen mixed scaup and redhead decoys, with about a dozen floating goose decoys off to the side. After about 6 hours, 4 of us managed to harvest 7 canvasbacks (limit: 8 canvasbacks out of a possible total of 24 ducks), and 5 geese (limit: 8). I shot really poorly, which did not help matters. I had to suck it up and leave around noon........back to work!
Kent County Combo - 2 cans, 2 geese

It has been a challenging, but not bad, season. The drought lasted into November, so the early-arriving ducks did not really see what habitat was around the farms and refuges. Hunting in late November to mid-December was very productive, as weather events were coming from the north and pushing ducks and geese from Canada into the Mid-Atlantic states, and also filling up wetlands and ponds. However, by Christmas, many of those ducks had flown south, and new weather events since then have been primarily noreasters - blowing up from the Mississippi & Gulf of Mexico. That keeps birds to the north of us (NY, PA, Canada) also. We never did get a flush of late ducks.

At any rate, it was a fun & challenging season that didn't require the purchase of a lot of new gear. And there is one hunt left.....the last day of the season!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Your Wood Duck Boxes Suck! Fix Them!

Dear folks,

Do you like wood ducks? Of course you do - everybody likes wood ducks. They are beautiful, really cute, they are very responsive to habitat management, and also happen to be quite delicious! However, just because you like wood ducks, and own a pond or wetland or riverfront, does not mean that you should grab some household items and just tack up a wood duck box, in hopes of growing even more cute and fuzzy wood ducks. Why not? Doing it wrong will kill most or all of your ducklings.

The facts (roughly, from an old, probably outdated study):

65% of wood duck boxes get used each year
79% of those used boxes are NOT used by wood ducks, but instead by other wildlife
Of the roughly 14% of wood duck boxes that ARE used by wood ducks, less than one third actually hatch a successful brood of ducklings.

So approximately 5% of wood duck boxes hatch a successful brood.

How is that possible? Poor construction, installation, site selection, and management of wood duck boxes. Or at least, that is my professional opinion.

1. Poor site selection - proximity to other boxes. This is important because young hens "dump" eggs in other nests if they find them. You should NEVER be able to see the front of a wood duck box from the hole of another wood duck box. NEVER!

2. Poor site selection - area does not have standing water during early summer. Important because wood duck ducklings prefer to swim immediately after leaving the nest. They are extremely vulnerable to predators when stuck on the ground, or in the mud.

3. Poor installation - bottom of the box is less than 2 meters above high water/tide mark. This is important in the Mid-Atlantic and the Southeast because we commonly have snakes over 2 meters long. Like this one.

Photo from Maryland Wood Duck Initiative
4. Poor construction - material selection. Last week, I saw wood duck boxes made out of 3 gallon DRYWALL BUCKETS! Did they work? No, but when the buckets got hot, some kind of fumes killed the ducks who had started to build nests. I've also seen aluminum and dark plastic boxes---these get hot and fry the eggs. There's nothing the hen can do to stop it. People - keep it to high quality wood, and LIGHT colored plastic boxes, preferably the pre-fab boxes (I believe both Delta Waterfowl and Ducks Unlimited have sold these before).

5. Poor construction - no predator guard or predator guard insufficient. This is pretty self-explanatory. To finish this off, here is a great wood duck box and a great predator guard from the Wood Duck Society (I'm stealing their picture).



Photo: Ducks Unlimited

Friday, January 18, 2008

Hell Hath Rained Down!

Just returned from coastal Virginia tonight and wet gear is now laying all over the house, much to Amy's displeasure! The trip was successful, though our duck hunt was a bust. Enjoy the pictures.

New site we surveyed for a wetland restoration project! Good soils and only 1' of vertical fall over 8 acres! I'll take it!

Grave of Sarah Parker, d. 1915

Salt marsh is an unforgiving but exciting place to hunt birds. When the tide comes up, huge areas are flooded with shallow water, which greatly increases ducks' access to food - and decreases hunters' chances of attracting birds to a spread of duck decoys. This chaff and seed from Spartina cynosuroides was sitting on "dry" mud 20 minutes before this picture was taken. The seed is great duck food, while the chaff and culms (stems) are good food for aquatic snails that the ducks also enjoy to eat in the winter and spring.

Horrible photo of 4 male bald eagles fighting over dead chickens on a corporate chicken farm. Every day, the workers clean out the chicken houses, along with any dead chickens. They throw the dead chickens in the fields for eagles, hawks, and other scavengers to fight over. This sight was hard to comprehend - when I grew up in southeastern Virginia in the 1970s/1980s, there were very few bald eagles. 20 years later, they are common throughout the Chesapeake Bay (a wildlife management success story!), and far from being fierce, beautiful predators, they (as a whole) have carved out a niche as aggressive, opportunistic scavengers. The picture says it all - bald eagles in a soybean field, eating cold, dead chickens.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Next Week - Gettin' Old School

First Mattasippi plantation house; circa 1630
Photo: 35mm BW / Fall 2006

Next week should be a good's officially late duck season, and we have a 3 day work trip planned for the eastern shore of VA - a fairly desolate, mosquito-ridden, two-county area that still holds a lot of history and a lot of secrets. Above - the remains of the first mansion house at the Mattasippi Plantation - the first agricultural settlement of the Johnson family in the New World. If you are an American Johnson, your ancestors likely either lived here or at least passed through here.

The eastern shore of Virginia is a challenging place to do swamp work because the soils are notoriously sandy. Sand makes it hard to control when and where the water goes, which, really, is what my job is all about understanding and controlling. But at least it's flat, which is helpful. One of the farms we're looking at (for wetland restoration) is one of the remaining parcels on the Mattasippi Plantation, which is now known by another name.

Fresh oysters are the call right now in the lower Chesapeake Bay, and when we finally get to put the waders on and hunt on friday, we are pretty sure ducks will be in the area. Expect good photos and hopefully some good stories :)

Thursday, January 10, 2008

T Dogg Update - Panama

OK, well here is the deal for Panama now.... It doesnt look like this barge is going anywherefast. It is hard to tell because now the USCG and the American Bureau of Shipping are involved. Bottom line - no one wants to put their neck out to let us leave. Also, offloading sugar from the busted up barge is a problem because we are hauling sugar from Guatemala, and Panama sugar docks will only handle Panamanian raw sugar.

Our crew is pretty down and out. Everyone is pretty much done sightseeing the third world areas of central america. Anyway the captain called our HQ in maryland, and told them to start thinking about crew changes. Some of the guys need to get home and some just want to go home. My major problem with that is the mound of paperwork that has to get approved because I am still waiting on my new passport. So in other words, we have no idea what is going on because there are too many variables.

I do know I miss american stuff like toilet paper that doesnt feel like recycled cardboard and hamburger meat that isnt 50% beef 50% rufus the old dog.

peace out tyler

New England Jaunt

Digital/reprocessed / copyright me!

Just returned from a pretty short but fulfilling trip to New England. A farmer (family has owned the property since the 1650s - the house above was built prior to 1660), in conjunction with Ducks Unlimited and the Federal government, would like to restore a field to a seasonally flooded wetland. This type of restoration project, which used to be called "moist soil establishment" by waterfowl managers, encourages the growth of wetland plants that ducks love to eat, then allows the area to flood during winter, so the ducks can swim around the plants. As the plants rot in winter and the ducks switch their diet over to protein-rich bugs and snails, the plants provide places for those bugs and snails to live.

In the winter these sites look like this:

In the summer, they look like this:

Yes, fellow bio-nerds, I know that a sedge meadow (pictured above) is a PEM1B, while a moist soil impoundment (first picture) is a PEM1C(h). Ya got me there. How 'bout this: "Pictures are for illustration only."

Anyway, it was great to share my experience with these types of projects with the guys up north - they were really interested and receptive! But, my trip was great on another front - I hadn't been back to the New England coast since an (ill-fated) surfing trip to RI and MA at least 5 years ago. I forgot how much I love the landscape and the history and the very real people. Not so different from the people I grew up with on the coast of VA. OK, maybe a little different.

It was great to get a northern dose of colonial history....seeing everything from Venture's Stone ( ) to CT's Continental (Army) Marsh, which supplied Washington's army with hay for the horses during their northern expeditions. I even got to try a new beer - Harpoon Old Salt....which apparently is just an alias for Harpoon UFO. Not super impressive. However, I did get to have fresh Atlantic oysters (from PEI, not Del or Ches Bay for a change!!!), fresh chowder, and fresh fried clam bellies. SWEET. Now it's back to work in Maryland....

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Motivation for 2008

LEICA MF B/W 120, 2005. Southern Maryland

The holidays were full of family time, and a family death & funeral, and left us pretty wiped out by the time we returned to work (January 2). Still reeling from the lack of time afield. However, great time to bust out some of my favorite, most important quotes that keep me motivated through the grind....until I can settle my schedule and get back out in the swamp.

My top 5:

5. got to ride it like you find it (Woody Guthrie)

4. All you have to do is do it (Descendents)

3. Life is full of choices, if you have the guts to go for it (Henry Rollins)

2. The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak, so we must and we will (T. Roosevelt)

1. My troops may fail to take a position, but are never driven from one! (Stonewall Jackson)

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Over 12 years ago, I started this blog. There were very few conservation or outdoor blogs at the time, few websites with fast-breaking con...